We were already engaged. I had a dress, a ring, and was committed, but what really solidified the understanding I had chosen the right man with whom to join my life was a conversation with my family, my future husband, and a palliative care social worker about how my mother would want to live out the remainder of her days on earth.
I met Camilo in September 2012 in Montgomery, Alabama, a place neither of us belonged, but were brought to by a belief in social justice and the law. I was instantly comfortable with him, finding myself pouring out my fears I had chosen the wrong job fresh out of graduate school within our first few hours of meeting. We got to know each other on long days in Birmingham, conducting community outreach. I found Camilo to be so genuine, kind, confident, intelligent, and caring. Lucky for me, he was also handsome and single. By October we were officially a couple. One morning in November he told me that he loved me and though I had not been able to put words to what I was feeling before that moment, once he said it, I knew those were the right ones and told him the same thing. In December, he went back to Seattle to study for the bar exam and we entered that special hell of having the one you love a very expensive plane ride away.
In January 2013 on the night before my birthday, my father called to tell me the seemingly innocuous stomach pains my mother had been having for months were the over looked evidence of the primary peritoneal cancer that had now filled her body cavity. A couple weeks later in early February, I flew up to Alaska to sit in the waiting room while a surgeon worked to clear her body for almost eight hours.
In March once the bar exam was over, Camilo flew back to Alabama to see me, took me to the beach, and asked me to be his wife. Even with a relationship speed typically reserved for romantic comedies or cautionary tales, I knew enough to know I should say yes because of course I loved him and wanted to spend my life with him. My best friend and I bought a dress on a lark off the rack at David’s Bridal. It was beautiful and she cried, which was perfect.
My mama started chemotherapy in early March, barely recovered at all from the extensive surgery. The chemo was horrible and she got sicker and sicker, finally unable to get out of bed, eat, or move. She slept most of the day and spent her waking hours in agony. She lost almost one hundred pounds. By mid-April 2013, she was rushed by ambulance to the hospital with a severe infection. I hopped on a plane for the second of what would be seven trips to Alaska and met my little sister and dad in her hospital room. Mama looked awful. I love her and treasure her memory too much to write about what afflicted her there, but within twenty-four hours, we had spoken to a palliative care nurse who told us it was time to gather everyone. They did not know what was taking my mama, but it was taking her fast.
I called Camilo who jumped on a plane, as did the rest of my sisters (five of us in all) and my brother-in-law. And that is how we found ourselves in a room talking about what Mama would want because the time had come that she could no longer decide for herself.
And then, miraculously, Mama got better. By “got better,” I merely mean she did not die. She was foggy-headed and in pain and confused and slept much of the time, but she did not die and we got to take her home.
I should mention Camilo and I had no money. He had put the plane ticket on a credit card rapidly approaching its limit and I had borrowed money from my next paycheck to get to Alaska. We had no idea what our lives would look like or how we would get from a bi-coastal relationship to married couple, but I had a ring on my finger, a dress, and a man who clearly was the love of my life. My entire family was in Alaska with us and Camilo’s parents lived on the West Coast. We did not know if my mother would ever be able to travel again, so we decided on Friday to get married the following Tuesday afternoon. We found a chalet overlooking a snowy hill and decided we would all go out to a restaurant for an early dinner following. A friend in Alabama mailed me my dress. I called to tell my best friend the awful news that she would not be at my wedding, but she just asked me when and where and bought her plane ticket from Kentucky to Alaska to leave two days later. My mother-in-law bought a ticket too and it looked like this might actually happen.
And it did. Our day was not perfect, and it was not what I had imagined. My mother was on so many medications that she fell asleep while I put my dress on, and I turned around to find her snoring just as I asked her what she thought. It was then that I started to cry. She was not there to help me pick out my dress or decide how to do my hair, to exclaim over venue, or worry about flowers, but losing this moment was too much. So, I let myself feel the moment. I let myself understand that she would not be able to recall the details of the day or be the mother I knew, loved, and needed on that day, and I made a conscious decision that that would be alright. I would not get the dream wedding, and that would be alright. I did not know then I would be getting a marriage that more than makes up for it.
Camilo and I planned the reception via text message as we drove separately to the venue, my daddy walked me down the aisle, a high school kid with a great eye took pictures for $25, and I married an excellent man whom I love more today than I could have known on that day. My mama was there and fifteen months later, my husband and I flew back to Alaska to help bury her. And if I thought I knew he was the right man in that tiny conference room in that hospital, watching my husband help to carry my mother’s casket to her final resting place was the most convincing proof of true love I have ever experienced.
I have gorgeous memories of my wedding day: my sisters helping me plan through their sleep deprived grief fogs, the happiness we were able to bring my family in a very dark time, everyone crying throughout the ceremony at the beauty and magnitude of what was happening, my mother surprising us all by finding her voice through the haze of illness to stand up and tell us she loved and would support us and our marriage, marrying my husband. I do not regret a single thing about how that day happened, and I am truly fortunate to have had it in just that way.